A family man and ‘a real man’ of the action cinema. Case study: ‘Ransom’ (Film Essay), February 2014.


In the following essay I am going to engage with Krin Gabbard’s essay “Someone is Going to Pay” and in particular Gabbard’s claim that “the fundamental and incoherent project of Ransom is to represent Tom Mullen as, simultaneously, a family man and a ‘real’ man of the action cinema.”[1] To the similar end, Yvonne Tasker cites Susan Jefferson who “has influentially argued that the American action picture first elevated a hard-bodied muscular hero in the films of the 1980s, then qualified that enactment of toughness with a new softness centred on a nurturing paternity during the 1990s.”[2] This narrative centrality of incoherence between two cultural constructs of masculinity in the Hollywood action film pointed out by Gabbard necessitates further exploration of masculinity as culturally coded within the context of Hollywood narratives. I will centre my focus on the new action film, introducing fathers as central heroic action figures. In the course of the essay, I will also look at Gabbard’s engagement with the significance of the ‘outlaw hero’ to American imagery and national mythology, in particular, in “disguised westerns”, inclusive of the action film, as referred to by what Robert B. Ray, cited by Gabbard. Central to my discussion of fathers in the action film as successfully merging the myths of “a family man” and “a real man” lies the hegemony of the white male in as protagonist. Through engaging with a variety of film texts, I will aim to conclude that the white male of the action film does not need to compromise his masculinity through, as proposed by Davies and Smith in their “White Masculinity as Paternity”, “attribution to male characters of qualities traditionally feminine.”[3] Such attribution, and perceived crisis, filtered through with the introduction of the new father in the Hollywood cinema, epitomized by Dustin Hoffman in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the father that was present, affectionate, doting. Hoffman’s character therefore dramatically moved away from “the real man” of the “disguised western.” I will further argue that narratives such as Ransom aim to reinstate the hegemony of a white heterosexual male and preserve his mythologized heroic status through subordinating and renegotiating representation of parenthood, whilst appearing to perform contrary action of renegotiating white masculinity through parenthood.

In the course of my essay, I will argue that despite the shift towards family at the centre of the narrative, action films of the 1990s, such as Ransom position the isolated [heterosexual, white and male] individual at the centre of the action in disguise of a “family man”. The shift towards the family is therefore only arbitrary and subordinated to the formula of Hollywood’s fantastical playing out of a phallic quest, present at the core of every culturally coded masculine genre, to which I will return in due course. One of the key characteristic [white] masculinity exercises in such narratives, as identified by Gabbard, is autonomy despite the male’s positioning within a family. It is Tom’s autonomous and subsequently proven righteous, decisions that lead the narrative to a conclusive finale of Tom’s triumph. Gabbard points out that “by daring the kidnappers to kill his son, Tom can resist the voice of the Other (…) and remain the audacious, autonomous protagonist of his own narrative.”[4] Culturally coded myths of a “family man” and a “real man” are amplified through the use of the narrative structure of the action film, which is primarily based on action moving quickly from one dramatic event to the next. Gabbard notes that “Ransom dramatizes what happens when myths of the American hero are superimposed on myths of bourgeois family.”[5] In addition to this, Tom Mullen’s character dramatizes two further culturally coded myths of [white] masculinity: the one of the ‘outlaw hero’ and the ‘official hero’, and the tension between the two, traditionally structuring protagonists of westerns and the later “disguised westerns.” Mullen successfully emerges as ‘the official, lawful hero’ (despite his many misdeeds), the outlaw hero (as indicated through/by his autonomous decisions, which run contrary to the law enforcement representative of Agent Lonnie Hawkins), “the real man of the action cinema” and “a family man”, as Mullen retrieves the son and restores the family.

Prior to further exploration of parenthood in action film genre, I will turn to the significance of the hegemony of the white male, who enjoys the privilege of successfully merging seemingly incoherent myths of masculinity. Drucilla Cornell in “Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity” points out that “it is almost entirely unheard of for a Hollywood film to tell a white man’s story from the perspective of a black man.”[6] In the course of Ransom, we are made to identify solely with Tom’s gaze. However loosely applying Jacque Lacan’s “the Other”, Gabbard nonetheless successfully points to the invisibility of the white male’s identity. Similarly to the identifying one’s gender and race through the Other, as purported by Gabbard, the male recognizes himself as the father through the Other – the child. The white male, however, despite recognizing himself as being of race and gender through the Other never becomes the Other for anyone, not even the spectator, taking up the privileged position of the maker of meaning.

Following Gabbard’s argumentation, it is the white [heterosexual] male that exercises agency and is a central figure in all prevailing discourses of masculinity and paternity, whilst not being marked by his gender or race. In Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop (1984) released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Eddie Murphy’s “real man” masculinity is compromised through comedy, Murphy’s character being the source of comedy in the action narrative, despite his outlaw and rebellious status within the police force. Such compromise does not take place in Indiana Jones, where the humour is an attribute of Indiana Jones’s wit not weakness. Such representation of Murphy’s characters connotes his overtly-comedic character structure to the early Hollywood representations of non-white and non-heterosexual men, who were never allowed to possess the phallus and therefore exercise narrative agency. Spike Lee’s much later action thriller Inside Man (2006), however offering a premise for a collective, “faceless”, therefore “genderless” and “raceless” protagonist, has a white male played by Clive Owen as its key protagonist and the mastermind. The criminal action of Owen’s character is similarly to Tom’s morally justified towards the end of the narrative as we learn that his actions are aimed against a Nazi officer resident in the USA. The autonomy and power the action genre persists to lie with a white [heterosexual] male. Gabbard asserts that when Tom finds a way to summon Hawkins, “this is simply an obligatory moment in the American action cinema in which the purposes of the ‘outlaw hero’ and the ‘official hero’ converge,”[7] the motion which Inside Man supports.

This successful convergence formula of masculine narratives has been successfully carried over into action films with central father figures. Davies and Smith state that “since the late 1980s representations of white males as domesticated, feminized or paternal have featured prominently in numerous films in a range of genres including comedies, romances, action movies and thrillers.”[8] As already stressed, Gabbard points out Mullen’s quest to achieve masculine autonomy happens “from within an idealized family structure.”[9] It is a quest for the child; therefore a quest to restore the family, as well as it is a quest for restoration of masculinity. Gabbard notes that “the hero often risks his life to save the people he cares about, but he usually moves on as the narrative ends, still resisting the compromises and entanglements that come with family and stability.”[10]This archetype is epitomized in the mythical character of Robin Hood, an individual helping others, whilst asserting his autonomy; he performs the symbolic fatherhood, which is also often associated with sovereignty, religious, army and other public bodies of authority. This model has been reapplied to another “western in disguise”: the superhero genre. Such narratives proved commercially immensely successful with hits such as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) dominating the domestic box office.

The insertion of parenthood caused a dramatic shift in finales of such narratives, which traditionally have the hero, as Gabbard notes, moving on as the narrative ends and “(…) resisting the compromises and entanglements that come with family and stability.”[11] Ransom reinstates the man within the family as a father without compromising his masculinity through preserving his autonomy in the course of action. This restoration of masculinity in Ransom happens firstly when Mullen decides against paying the kidnappers, thus, as Gabbard states, “overcoming the impotence brought on by his life as a family man.”[12] The film elicits a reading wherein only upon becoming “the real man,” the male can fully become “a family man” and a father without risking being a mere appropriation of the mother. This is why, I believe, the woman needs to be rejected in order for the fatherhood to be autonomous and not become the mere projection of the motherhood. This is evident in the family comedy genre and films such as Leonard Nimoy’s Three Men and a Baby (1987), wherein race, sexuality, privileged socioeconomic status of the film’s protagonists, who are agents of solution to the baby’s mother’s problems and providers of the successful narrative finale, even their initial promiscuity are still not enough to reinstate the phallic power. Regarding Three Men and a Baby, it could be deduced that all three ‘fathers’ instead of embarking on their primordial quest for the phallus, locate fatherhood in appropriation of the motherhood, therefore failing the culturally coded masculinity. Throughout the narrative Mullen acts outside of the family’s realms and confinement, however being primarily marked as the father, unlike Three Men and a Baby’s protagonists’ actions, which all revolve within the culturally feminized space of domesticity. Gabbard quotes Aaron Gill’s review in Time Out New York, wherein he states that “If Tom (…) is the archetypal father, rendered impotent by his feminine love for his son (….), only by denying that love and reasserting his masculine impulse can he again find his rightful place in the universe.”[13] This is further explored in Schneider’s assertion who states that “the action-thriller’s construction of masculinity marks not only a return to the family as a source of masculinity and power but also a complete effacement of any different spectacular achievement and domestic triumph.”[14]

In conclusion, I would dispute Schneider’s claim, not seeing the family as necessarily the source of masculinity or power in Ransom. The action film has created a unique space for men to exercise their fantastical phallic quests due to their culturally coded hyper-masculine qualities and the genre’s being embedded in most strongly encoded American cultural myths of masculinity, which continue to perpetuate narratives. I would therefore argue that Ransom’s incoherent project of representing Tom Mullen, as simultaneously “a family man” and “a real man of action cinema” is aimed to enable repossession of the phallus by the heterosexual, white male through subordination of the cultural codes of the family. It is further aimed to establish fatherhood as an autonomous identity, not identified through the mother, but established on its own terms. I therefore argued on the example of Three Men and a Baby that it is only through becoming “the real man”, a man can become “a family man”. Lastly, I believe that performing such dual representation in disguise of renegotiating masculinity, in fact renegotiates and, most importantly, reinstates, prevailing modes of masculinity.

[1] Krin Gabbard, “‘Someone is Going to Pay’: Resurgent White Masculinity in Ransom” In Peter Lehman (ed) Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 9

[2] Yvonne Tasker, “The Family in Action” In Yvonne Tasker (ed), Action and Adventure Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 253

[3] Jude Davies and Carol R. Smith, “White Masculinity as Paternity: Michael Douglas, Fatherhood and the Uses of the American Family” In Gender, Ethnicity and Sexuality in Contemporary American Film (Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997), 20.

[4] Gabbard, 11.

[5] Gabbard,10.

[6] Drucilla Cornell, “Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity”, 169.

[7] Gabbard, 17.

[8] Davies and Smith, 19.

[9] Gabbard, 10.

[10] Gabbard, 9.

[11] Gabbard, 9.

[12] Gabbard, 17.

[13] Gabbard, 22.

[14] Karen Schneider, “With Violence if Necessary: Rearticulating the Family in the Contemporary Action Thriller” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27 no. 1 (1999): 5.